Artful Dodgers, bleeding, blue

Here, Frank and Jamie McCourt were a formidable team. In LA, their second act may be just about up

Jamie McCourt (far left) and Frank McCourt (far right) at a Dodgers playoff game against the Phillies. Jamie McCourt (far left) and Frank McCourt (far right) at a Dodgers playoff game against the Phillies. (Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images)
By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / November 8, 2009

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It was 2001, Frank McCourt had just pitched a roomful of businesspeople on his bold dream to buy the Red Sox and turn 24 acres of pavement he owned on the South Boston Waterfront into a state-of-the-art ballpark. Sensing some resistance to the idea, the silver-haired landowner agreed to sweeten the deal, and was about to offer an enticement when his wife, a blond, slender-framed woman with sharp features, cut him off.

“Shut up, Frank,’’ said Jamie McCourt.

To those in the room familiar with the couple, the exchange, recounted by a lawyer who was present, was typical. For two decades in Boston, the hard-nosed husband and wife developers had proved themselves to be shrewd, but combative, even with each other. It was a style that won them few friends in the business community or at City Hall, and when their play for the Sox failed and the McCourts headed West to take over the Dodgers, many wondered how their headstrong approach would play in Los Angeles.

The answer, it seems, is badly. Last month, sensational details of the couple’s bitter divorce - Jamie McCourt’s alleged affair with her driver, the collection of multimillion-dollar homes and penchant for $400 dinners and $5,000 hotel rooms - became fodder for the front page and grist for gossip websites. A local columnist has taken to calling Frank McCourt “the Boston parking lot attendant’’ and his wife “The Screaming Meanie.’’ Their pending split has fans of the venerable L.A. baseball franchise up in arms and may force the McCourts to sell the team.

“It’s not good when you’re getting your baseball news from TMZ,’’ says Mike Petriello, who runs the popular Dodgers blog and referred to a leading gossip site. “Everyone here is kind of horrified with Frank and Jamie McCourt.’’

From the beginning, the out-of-towners were viewed with suspicion by many in Los Angeles. Because the McCourts, who had never seen Dodger Stadium before they bought the team, used their valuable Boston real estate as collateral in the deal, fans worried the couple lacked the deep pockets that allow Major League Baseball owners to sign high-priced free agents and compete for the World Series. Even as the team succeeded on the field, finishing first in the National League west four of the first six years of the McCourts’s ownership, the couple alienated fans by frantically hiring and firing front-office personnel, trading away popular players and prospects, and enlisting a slew of spin doctors to burnish their own public image. (Through their attorneys, Frank and Jamie McCourt declined to be interviewed for this story.)

“They may be wonderful, smart businesspeople,’’ says T.J. Simers, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “But they took over an L.A. treasure and it was on-the-job-training from day one. If you want to do that, go to Sioux City, Iowa.’’

What makes their split so juicy, even by L.A. standards, is that Frank, 56, and Jamie McCourt, 55, have been business partners for much of their 30-year marriage. In court documents, Jamie claims she gave her husband $1,000 to start his first company. A talented and tenacious lawyer, she was also her husband’s general counsel for a decade and served as CEO of the Dodgers until Frank sent her a bloodless letter Oct. 23 firing her. “Dear Jamie: This is to inform you that your employment with and positions as Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairperson of the Los Angeles Dodgers are hereby terminated effective immediately,’’ wrote Frank McCourt.

“This is hardly a woman who plays mahjong or drives golf balls all day long,’’ says Bert Fields, the Hollywood entertainment lawyer whose clients include Tom Cruise, Warren Beatty, and The Beatles. “Jamie has worked her butt off to get where she is.’’

In fact, she contends that she - not he - is the face of the Dodgers. Fields, who describes himself as Jamie McCourt’s “general consiglieri,’’ said his client hopes to buy out her husband. But many observers believe the McCourts will have no choice but to sell the club when the costly divorce is done.

A lack of vision was never the rap on Frank McCourt, whose grandfather, Francis, was a part-owner of the Boston Braves and helped start the Jimmy Fund in 1948. The family’s fourth-generation construction company has had a shovel in virtually every major real-estate project in Boston over the past century. It would have been natural for Frank to join the firm, but he didn’t, opting instead to start his own development company.

He met Jamie Luskin when they were undergraduates at Georgetown. She had grown up in Baltimore, where her father, Jack Luskin, owned a chain of discount TV and appliance stores. Jamie’s father was famous for wacky ads that described him as “the cheapest guy in town.’’

Frank and Jamie McCourt have said it was “love at first sight,’’ but because he was Irish Catholic and she was Jewish, the bride’s parents boycotted the wedding. Frank eventually converted, and the couple’s four sons, who range in age from 28 to 19, were raised Jewish.

The primary source of the McCourts’s wealth was a vast tract of undeveloped land in the Seaport district, a 24-acre parcel they assembled through dogged litigation and land swaps. It took nearly a decade to put together, but the property generated millions in parking revenues. The legal battles, and the couple’s subsequent hard push to develop the property, antagonized many in the business community, which is why several people contacted for this story declined to talk publicly about the McCourts.

“Frank was relentless in two respects: Having a vision for that site and promoting it,’’ recalls former transportation secretary James Kerasiotes. “He was always walking around with plans and blueprints, and he was always careful to tell you how you would win. He had a million ideas.’’

One of those ideas was buying his beloved hometown baseball team. When the Red Sox were put up for sale in 2001, McCourt joined with an investment banking firm to explore his options. Though he was an unlikely candidate, competing with Charles Dolan, the billionaire founder of Cablevision Systems Corp., Boston Culinary Group owner Joe O’Donnell, and TV producer Tom Werner (who ultimately teamed with John Henry to win the franchise), McCourt had one thing others did not: prime real estate on which to build a ballpark to replace the aging Fenway Park.

“The seller was looking to sell, not swap a ball club for a parking lot,’’ says a Major League Baseball official with knowledge of the bidding. “There were guys writing checks for millions of dollars, and Frank was offering a parking lot. He was never seriously considered.’’

Their field of dreams dashed in Boston, the McCourts cast an eye toward California. They made overtures to buy the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and dispatched their two oldest sons to scout other opportunities, including bringing professional football back to Los Angeles.

In 2003, when Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group announced its intention to sell the Dodgers, Frank McCourt was first in line. Eager to unload a franchise that was hemorrhaging money, Fox accepted McCourt’s $430 million offer, which included the parking lots in South Boston.

The team has performed well enough, with star power on the field (Manny Ramirez) and in the manager’s office (Joe Torre). And the franchise has grown substantially in value during the McCourts’s tenure. But the public never warmed to the owners. Intensely private in Boston, they seemed to crave the spotlight in Los Angeles. Their charitable work was overshadowed by their profligate spending on real estate, which included $26.5 million for two homes across the street from the Playboy mansion, and $46 million for two beachfront homes in Malibu, one of them designed by influential American architect John Lautner. (In court papers, Jamie McCourt, who is an avid swimmer, complains that the pool at the Lautner home is “not suitable for long-distance swimming.’’)

In Boston, the couple had split their time between a seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom house in Brookline and a 100-acre beachfront estate in Cotuit, which they bought in 1998 for $19.5 million and, according to court records, are trying to sell now for $50 million. In 2001, the builders of the Brookline home sued the McCourts, claiming they failed to pay $788,000 and engaged in “a pattern of broken promises, deception, and misrepresentation.’’ The case was settled out of court. (Before selling the Brookline house for $16 million to Red Sox owner John Henry, who promptly tore it down, the McCourts spent $180,000 to have the kitchen dismantled and installed in one of their L.A. residences.)

Sensitive to the negative press in Los Angeles, the McCourts brought in a series of public relations pros to help hone their image. There was Camille Johnston, a former aide to Tipper Gore who is now communications director for Michelle Obama; then sports agent Lon Rosen, who represents former Lakers star Magic Johnson; and, finally, onetime Red Sox marketing impresario Charles Steinberg, who was hired by Jamie and let go last month by Frank.

“It is my belief that Frank fired Dr. Steinberg because Frank targeted Dr. Steinberg as one of my key supporters within the Dodgers,’’ Jamie says in a court filing.

And that was all before details of the divorce started spilling out. The couple, who made a great show of their closeness when they arrived in Los Angeles, announced their split last month, and the angry recriminations began immediately. In a public display of the friction, they sat in separate rows of the owner’s box during playoff games against the St. Louis Cardinals. And on Oct. 23, Frank ordered Jamie, then the highest-ranking woman in Major League Baseball, to clean out her desk, accusing her of “insubordination’’ due to her alleged affair with her driver, Jeff Fuller.

“Baloney,’’ says Bert Fields, her attorney. “That’s not grounds for termination. Do you see CBS firing David Letterman?’’

Frank McCourt has declared himself the sole owner of the Dodgers, pointing to a 2004 document his wife allegedly signed that grants him total control over the club. Jamie McCourt insists she didn’t know what she was signing, and has, additionally, requested $487,634 in monthly spousal support. Included in that sum is money for travel on private jets, eight full-time housekeepers, designer clothing, money for hair and makeup, and dinners at exclusive L.A. restaurants.

“Unless she’s had a lobotomy since moving to L.A., I don’t believe she didn’t know what she was signing,’’ says a prominent Boston attorney who dealt with the McCourts many times. “Of the two, Jamie was always in charge, as far as I was concerned. She was drafting the documents, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.’’

Frank McCourt’s attorney, Marc Seltzer, said there is no question who is in charge.

“I can say, on the record, that Frank McCourt has been and is the owner of the Dodgers,’’ said Seltzer. “It’s business as usual for the team.’’

Los Angeles City Councilor Tom LaBonge, who’s been a vocal supporter of the owners, said he is watching the early innings of McCourt v. McCourt and feels bad for the couple and their children. He said they have been operating in the long shadow of Walter and Peter O’Malley, the legendary former owners of the Dodgers.

“Frank and Jamie have brought great sunshine to erase that shadow,’’ said LaBonge, “but like Charlie Rich sang, ‘No one knows what goes on behind closed doors.’ ’’

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